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Post-Game Thoughts: Washington

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Cal engineers one of the ugliest and most unexpected wins you’ll ever see to upset the Huskies

Washington v California Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

A great, unexpected Cal win always leaves me wired for a long time afterwards, as my scattershot mind bounces back and forth between another college game, twitter, online scoreboards, and various stat websites.

The best part about this is seeing the final score of the Cal game pop up, instantly flooding your brain with another dose of endorphins. That’s especially fun when the score happens to be weird and funny. Which means that every time I saw “12–10” again, I immediately began spontaneously laughing.

It’s similar to how I felt after this particular slice of Dykesian madness, except this game was the exact opposite. It’s something we’ve all remarked upon before, but the completeness and speed with which Cal has transformed itself from all-offense to all-defense truly astounds.

In 2014, the Cal defense allowed eight touchdowns and the Bears won anyway. In 2018, the Cal offense produced six points and the Bears won anyway. Neither path to victory is remotely sustainable over the long term and each version of Cal football had pretty obvious flaws.

But damned if they didn’t give us some fun times in the process.

Offense

Efficiency Report

9 drives: 0 touchdowns, 3 FGA (2–3), 6 punts, 0 turnovers (!!!!), 0.666 points/drive

Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.73 points/drive
Washington defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.64 points/drive allowed

Not included: One very awesome 8-play, 27-yard, two-first-down, game-icing drive that very much wasn’t designed to score any points.

The worst offense in the Pac-12 ran face first into the third-best defense in the Pac-12 and the results were more or less what you would expect. Cal strung together about 2.5 credible drives that created three field goals of varying length and it’s a moderate miracle that this level of offensive production was somehow enough to win a football game. But it was!

The power of not screwing up

The one thing the Cal offense did yesterday was not turn the ball over, which was almost certainly priority number one for Cal’s game plan. A run/pass ratio of 3:2, a yards/completion of 8.8, and a long catch of 20 yards is certainly an indication that Cal wouldn’t or couldn’t take risks down the field.

And so, while the Cal offense produced efficiency numbers similar to the dire production seen against UNC and UCLA, they didn’t hand points to UW or even easy scoring opportunities. Accomplishing that did take a little bit of luck, as Cal recovered both of their own fumbles (one by Laird and another on a punt return).

Noted educators Reef and my wife compared this version of Cal’s offense to the grade a student gets just by doing the bear minimum of turning in their work—regardless of the quality. And while this level of production ONLY works if you happen to have a top-15 defense playing at their peak . . . well, Cal happens to have a top-15 defense and they just played at their peak. And it just barely worked.

The value of Brandon McIlwain

Brandon McIlwain got five out of Cal’s 60 snaps, and those plays gained a combined four yards. While McIlwain is absolutely the most dynamic runner on the team, the reality is that UW’s front seven is simply too talented to be beaten by wildcat plays in the fashion that Cal punished Arizona and Oregon.

To my mind, McIlwain’s value (at least, against a defense as good as UW’s) comes in short-yardage situations where his nimbleness might allow him to find a crease and get 2–3 yards. But all five of McIlwain’s snaps came on second downs in which Cal had somewhere between 5 and 10 yards to go, which struck me as too consistent to be a coincidence. For whatever it’s worth, Garbers reentered on each of the subsequent third-down plays and converted three of five.

Cal’s offense at its best

The game swung in Cal’s favor in the second half, but it’s what Cal did in the first half that put them in position to play a coin-flip game. In the second quarter, Cal manufactured two long drives that netted two field goal attempts and took a combined 12:37 off the clock. This accomplished two important things:

  1. The Bears created two scoring opportunities and limited UW’s scoring opportunities.
  2. Washington ran just 3 plays in the 2nd quarter.

What did Cal do in those drives? Nothing particularly fancy, but they ran and executed plays that worked to the strength of their key players. Patrick Laird got 10 touches. Chase Garbers extended plays with his legs and made accurate short throws that allowed his pass-catchers to get a little bit of YAC. More than anything else, the Bears avoided execution mistakes . . . until they got into field-goal range. It was a nice but all-too-brief glimpse of how this offense can work when all 11 players are on the same page.

And Cal got back to that offense on the very last series of the game, in which runs to Laird and well-executed short passes managed two critical first downs to earn Cal another major home upset under Justin Wilcox.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1–1), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 1 point/drive

Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.49 points/drive allowed
Washington offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.71 points/drive

Easily the best single-game defensive performance since at least Cal–Oregon 2010. Washington’s offense has generally been deceptively good, with a slow and conservative style of play that masks how generally efficient they’ve been—and against a slate of pretty excellent defenses.

Consider that UW has already played defenses in the top 10–20 against Auburn and Utah, along with a few other OKish defenses like BYU and Colorado. Then consider that Cal held Washington to their lowest yards-per-play average (4.31) and success rate (34%) so far this year. This was a dominant performance against a credible top-half Pac-12 offense and you could argue that the 10 points UW scored flattered them.

Seven of Washington’s points came on a 14-play, 64-yard drive to open the game that was almost stopped on multiple occasions and required a third-and-long conversion, a fourth-down scramble, and a roughing the passer penalty to extend the drive. Meanwhile, UW’s only other three points came thanks to long-punt-return-related field position and that almost never was thanks to a near Ashtyn Davis interception.

I feel like I should have more to say, but what else can you add? Cal’s line held up wonderfully at the point of attack, every linebacker was making penetrative plays, and the secondary was near perfect. UW’s only big gain came when the Huskies called a wheel route directly into the area vacated by the blitz and Weaver took a bad angle to the play. Other than that and a couple of nice throws Browning made on the few plays where he had all day, Cal played dominant defense.

The deceptively fast Evan Weaver

Nothing about Evan Weaver looks fast. Start with the fact that he’s a converted defensive lineman who still wears #89. At 245 pounds, he’s Cal’s heaviest linebacker. I have no idea what his 40-yard dash time would be, but the biggest thing that stood out to me yesterday was the speed that Weaver plays at.

When I rewatched the game, I focused in on Weaver and was really impressed at his sideline-to-sideline speed. UW started the game with a few plays that tried to get running back Salvon Ahmed into space in the flats. Ahmed is a speedy guy recruited as an athlete . . . and he couldn’t beat Weaver to the edge. And obviously Weaver’s speed stood out on his surprisingly athletic interception return, outrunning a couple of skill position guys to the corner of the end zone.

This was Weaver at his absolute peak. A stalwart constant in run support, a menace on plays to either edge, and a constant presence in the right place in short zone coverage on passing plays. His INT touchdown was the delicious cherry on top that won Cal the game. It’s hard for a single defensive player to be any more dominant and impactful.

Special Teams

A win in the first half; a loss in the second half.

Really, this was a game dominated by two punters. In a game that featured 11 combined punts, every single punt either netted 43+ yards or pinned a team at the 20 or further back. Every time there was a punt from midfield, the punter pinned the offense deep. Every punt from deep in a team’s own territory was a boomer that pushed the returner back. For the most part, each special-teams unit played a big role in limiting offensive production on either side.

The two obvious exceptions? Ashtyn Davis’ early 76-yard kickoff return that netted Cal a field goal and Aaron Fuller’s 28-yard punt return that also netted a field goal . . . though that wasn’t particularly valuable for UW (more on that below).

Cal pulled out a double-returner formation featuring both Wharton and Nikko Remigio, but the quality of UW’s punts and coverage meant that it’s hard to say what that formation might have brought to the table . . . unless UW’s successful coverage was due in part to Cal having one fewer blocker at the line of scrimmage?

Also, the game lists Remigio as fumbling one of the punts, but I don’t think it should actually have been ruled as such. Although Wharton was sharp to recover the ball just in case, as best I could tell, nobody actually touched the ball after one of Cal’s blockers took out Remigio just before he was set to catch the punt.

Coaching/Game Theory

A grateful thank you to Chris Petersen

The other thing I really tried to look for when rewatching the game was why in the world Chris Petersen decided to pull Jake Browning. And honestly I don’t really know.

Up to that point in the game, Jake Browning was 8–15 for 109 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. But it’s worth noting that two of his incompletions were accurate third-down throws that his receivers dropped. While I don’t think Browning was having anything close to his best game, I didn’t really see anything to suggest he was the problem.

The only argument I can think of for benching him was that he wasn’t making throws to open guys downfield. Browning had taken a sack and pulled the ball for short ineffective scrambles a few times and maybe Petersen felt like he was missing opportunities for better plays. But that strikes me as unlikely—the Cal secondary is pretty good and UW isn’t nearly as dynamic at the skill positions this year.

Regardless, Petersen made the ill-fated decision to pull Browning. “Other Jake” attempted four throws. One bounced on the turf three yards in front of his target and two others Cal linebackers got hands on. One was this play, of course. UW also had to waste a timeout with Haener on the field when the play clock nearly ran out, which turned out to be pretty consequential. Nobody tell Chris that he might’ve been able to run the ball three times a drive and punt throughout the second half and maybe win the game.

But I think Chris Petersen deserves just as much criticism for another awful decision that hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention. With 4:55 left in the game and trailing by five points, Petersen elected to kick a field goal on fourth and goal from the 9-yard line.

Were the odds of scoring a touchdown on that play particularly high? Probably not. But if you kick a field goal and give Cal the ball back with the lead your reasonable best-case scenario is getting the ball back well on your own side of the field needing to drive for a field goal with maybe two minutes left against a defense that you’ve done nothing against all game long. And the consequences of failure is again pinning the Cal offense inside their own 10.

And the very realistic worst-case scenario of kicking the field goal? Never getting the ball back again. Thanks Pete!

Other relevant/interesting decisions

Going for 2: Absolutely the right call, even though it failed. UW scoring a touchdown is more likely than UW scoring two field goals—and if UW does score a touchdown it would be much better for that TD to tie the game rather than put you behind. Oddly, failing the conversion may have helped us out since UW surely would’ve gone for it rather than kicking a field goal before Cal ran out the clock.

Cal taking an intentional delay of game on fourth and 3 from the Washington 36, then punting: Frustrating in the moment, but I guess understandable for a team that spent the entire game averaging 3.5 yards/play and has struggled in short-yardage conversions all season. Still, at the time Cal was still trailing and I can’t countenance passing up on a rare scoring opportunity. Bad call. Good results don’t justify bad process, but UW threw the pick-six on their subsequent possession, so credit to Steven Coutts, the punt team, and the Cal defense for doing their part to execute the chosen strategy as best as possible.

UW going for it on fourth and 8 and fourth and 10 rather than kicking long field goals: The right call in part because UW’s kicker is iffy—and it earned UW seven points rather than the max of six they might’ve gotten from field goals, a classic example of how taking risks to get touchdowns tends to be worth it.

Big Picture

Let’s start with the straightforward discussion of bowl eligibility. Before this game Cal was in the weird position of needing two wins in five games in which Cal would perhaps be the underdog in each game, but also have a pretty realistic shot at winning each one. Cal further muddied the waters by looking awful two weeks ago before looking dominant one week ago. Who were we gonna get? Most projection models assumed something in the middle and said that Cal would probably finish most seasons 6–6, but with 5–7 more likely than 7–5.

And then Cal went out and won probably the most difficult game left on the schedule, depending on how you feel about road games in Pullman.

Cal now just needs to win one game—and all of those flaws I listed last week are even more true after USC, Stanford, and Colorado suffered losses of varying severity. Failing to reach bowl eligibility would require a significant downturn and would be wildly demoralizing.

Instead, let’s focus on more subjective topics. Cal is now 5–3 through eight games, which is probably a record most of us would have taken prior to the season. The path has been different than expected, as is almost typically the case. If Cal gets to six wins as odds suggest they should, many will judge the season to have been a success.

But I suspect that the difference between an okay season that leaves many fans feeling cold and a truly successful season will be defined by game 10 and game 11. USC and Stanford are just about as beatable as they have been at any point in the last decade and Cal is just about as good as they have been at any point in the last decade. End one of those miserable streaks and we’ll have a grand old time in whichever weird place the old white guys who make money off of bowl games decide to send us. End both miserable streaks and I’ll happily pay airfare to watch the Bears play in Shreveport because HOT DAMN!

Is it logical that those two games will shape the narrative that Cal fans create, the mood that Cal fans will feel, and the level of buy-in that Cal fans bring to the 2019 season? Not really, no. But it’s also reality.

Beating a ranked UW and giving Cal fans a second chance (sorta) to rush the field in two years should and will buy the current regime plenty of good will. But we all know that the money games are yet to come.